Blu-ray Review: THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD Gets A Definitive Release From Scream Factory
This might be a first for ScreenAnarchy. Today we are checking out the Scream Factory collector's edition Blu-ray of Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead. This marks the third time we've reviewed a Blu-ray release of this film and I can't think of another time we've done that. Just in case you've never seen the film, here are some of my thoughts from previous pieces:
As I've mentioned in several previous pieces, The Return of the Living Dead is a film that speaks to all of my obsessions and came into my life at just the right time. While I was learning to channel my anger and frustration with all of the assholes in the world through music, I was also expanding my cinematic vocabulary, and horror films were tops on the list of interests. The Return of the Living Dead is not only one of the first films to combine the two elements, but it is far and away the most successful and respectful of both, even twenty-seven years later.
We first looked at the film when it was released by MGM back in 2010. At that time the Blu-ray was mostly a port of previously available DVD features with a marginal image upgade. One big sore spot among fans and collectors was the altered soundtrack of the film, which hadn't been available on home video in a long time. The background score and some of the dialogue was altered for home video in the '90s with only one Tartan DVD (full-frame) and the original VHS retaining the soundtrack. MGM's version carried the same audio as the previous DVD editions and fans were not happy. I ran down some of the differences in a previous post about the film:
It is worth noting that this [2010 US Blu-ray], and all of the US releases of this film on DVD have a slightly altered soundtrack. The Tar-man's voice is rerecorded, as is the "send more cops" zombie, and a couple of songs are mixed down or cut, including The Tall Boys "Take a Walk", and The Damned's "Dead Beat Dance". There is also sound editing around another event that might constitute a spoiler, so I won't post it specifically. That is all fairly disappointing, but I can't see it being corrected any time soon. I think Dan O'Bannon was pretty upset about it, but he was out of the decision making loop for this one, and now he is gone. It doesn't completely ruin the experience, but it is worth noting. The very first DVD release from Tartan UK had the in tact original soundtrack, but it was full screen, it is now long out of print and expensive on the second hand market. You can't always get what you want.
A year and a half later the film was released on Blu-ray by Second Sight in a Region B locked edition that corrected a lot of flaws, including adding the original soundtrack back as an option. In addition to the corrected soundtrack, the disc also added the monstrous behind the scenes documentary More Brains, which I reviewed as a stand alone release in 2011, as well as a gaggle of newly produced features from Severin Films. Here's a little of what I had to say about More Brains:
This documentary is an incredibly in-depth tribute to and exploration of that film, it's creators, and the path that took it to the top of the food chain in the glut of zombie films released in the last thirty years. More Brains: A Return to the Living Dead, directed by Bill Philputt and narrated by Brain "Scuz" Peck, is a fitting tribute to the film I love so dearly. This independent release from Michael Perez Entertainment, distributed by CAV, is chock full of extras on top of the awesome two hour feature and altogether makes this a must-buy for RotLD fans!
More Brains leaves no stone unturned and mines every aspect of the film, its production, its scripting, and its ultimate unexpected success. The interviewees include every living member of the main cast, the producer, the special effects teams, including one guy who got fired halfway through the shoot, and incredibly, even the Tarman himself turns up to share his own memories. The only significant omission from the main feature is writer/director Dan O'Bannon, who unfortunately passed away before the documentary was filmed. However, the extra features do include O'Bannon's final filmed interview, about 30 minutes worth of recollections from Return of the Living Dead and his other unreleased horror feature, Resurrection.
If you're wondering why I'm pulling from old releases to talk about a new Blu-ray, it's because this new edition of The Return of the Living Dead has it all and then some! This film, one of the greatest horror comedies of all time and simultaneously one of the best movies about punk rockers of all time, has been visited and revisted over the years to the point that you'd think that everything has been said. However, leave it to Scream Factory to turn up the volume and create a new marker by which home video releases should be measured.
This disc manages to improve upon Second Sight's noble attempt in several siginifcant ways. First, and most siginifcantly for fans, Scream Factory's release is sourced from a brand new 2K resotration of the original interpositive. The interpositive is 35mm master from which theatrical prints are struck and is second only to the original camera negative in terms of its fidelity. Previous home video editions, including both previous BLu-rays that we've looked at, have had issues rendering the image as cleanly as we'd like. In fact, when I reviewed the Second Sight disc, I marked it as one of the only factors that was moderately disappointing:
The image quality is as solid as any '80s low budget horror feature I've seen. The '80s were not a good time for film preservation, and certainly not preservation of films like these. The film stock was shoddy, and even in their inaugural runs, films often looked murky and washed out, simply because the color film of the era was very mediocre. In this case, I can happily report that the image looks about the same as the US Blu-ray, and significantly better than any previous DVD release.
All that is moot now with this new release, Scream Factory's new scan is gorgeous and it's like watching the film all over again. I've seen The Return of the Living Dead dozens of times, and with this new release I picked up details I've never seen before. Is it perfect? Well, not quite, the are a few instances when the grain appears to freeze in the brighter areas of the frame, but those are few and far between. The overall resolution and clarity of the image are top notch and this looks better than either of the theatrical presentations I've seen, both DCP and 35mm, and I am very happy about that.
Next up is the issue of the soundtrack. One of the elements that was crucial to this disc being successful in the eyes of the fans was the inclusion of the above mentioned original soundtrack. Well, we are mostly happy with this release. The original soundtrack, which includes additional music, unaltered sound effects, and the original voice of the Tar Man zombie is mostly in tact. Scream Factory did have to sacrifice one song, The Damned's "Dead Beat Dance" to a rights issue, but other than that the audio is original. The mixing on the recovered audio is fairly awkward with several instances of important dialogue getting buried under music, but I'm willing ot deal with that. I'll chalk this up as a win and keep my Second Sight disc if I really need to listen to that one song.
When I reviewed the UK disc a few years back, I remember being floored by the volume of extras included with the More Brains documentary, but this time around there is even more to discuss! Of course More Brains makes an appearance, but it isn't the only returning feature. We also get the return of a pair of audio commentaries, one featuring the late Dan O'Bannon and another with cast and crew that were on the previous discs. We also get an archival 30 minute piece called The Decade of Darkness, an Elvira-hosted overview of '80s horror. A couple of other worthwhile repeats are a pair of interviews with Dan O'Bannon and creator John Russo. Lastly there are a couple of short making of documentaries from the original US DVDs, The Return of the Living Dead - The Dead Have Risen, and Designing the Dead. All of these I've written about before.
In not-so-welcome-return news, Scream Factory also brought back the stupid zombie subtitles and "In Their Own Words - The Zombies Speak". These are dumb and not worth your time.
However, it isn't what returns that makes me happiest, it is all the new material that really gets me going! First up there is an augmented version of Party Time: The Music of The Return of the Living Dead, a feature by Severin Films that appeared in a shortened form on the Second Sight disc gets a massive upgrade with a ton of new interviews from even more soundtrack contributors. We also get two more commentaries, one that features cast members Thom Matthews and John Philbin along with FX artist Tony Gardner, and a really super commentary from Gary Smart (co-author of The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead) and Chris Griffiths. This is a fantastic authoritative commentary that bridges a lot of gaps in my own knowledge about the film and I loved every minute of it.
But that's not all!
We also get another edition of Horror's Hallowed Grounds, a segment that frequent horror Blu-ray buyers will be familiar with, that takes us back to what locations remain from the original shoot. Spoiler alert: there isn't much to see, but it's still pretty cool.
There is also yet another featurette about the amazing effects of the film and the now legendary conflicts on set titled The FX of The Living Dead. This featurette gathers up the usual subjects, original FX artist Bill Munns, production designer Bill Stout, and the team that replaced Munns led by Kenny Myers along with new kid Tony Gardner. If you've ever watched any behind the scenes material regarding this film, you know how contentious the effects work is. Bill Munns, who was removed from the production halfway through, remains steadfast in his assertion that none of the issues were his fault and he doesn't even see what's so special about the movie. What is new is that Kenny Myers and his team actually give a little ground as the years have passed and recognized that Munns faced a nearly impossible task given the time/budget. In any case, it's still fun to watch and there is a ton of bahind the scenes footage and artwork to make this worthwhile.
Lastly, but certainly not least, is the inclusion of the elusive workprint version of The Return of the Living Dead. Long a staple of the old bootleg booths at horror conventions, the workprint version is included as a bonus material on the second disc of this Blu-ray. It looks terrible, I guess the best the could do was a z-grade dupe, but it is here. This version is siginifcantly different, and inferior in my opinion, but it's defintely an interesting artifact. I'll post a link below that explores some of the differences between the workprint and the finished film.
So there you have it, another two thousand words on my favorite movie of all time. The bottom line is that this is the definitive home video release of The Return of the Living Dead now. You can safely spend your money and enjoy. With that, I leave you with one simple question...
DO YOU WANNA PARTY?